Located in the back alley of Minsheng East Road, Holt, which has just been recognized with one star in the MICHELIN Guide Taipei, Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung 2022, is small and simple. Yet, its humble appearance belies the complexity of the menu it offers. In its dishes blending Taiwanese terroir and global culinary cultures, one experiences the chef’s meticulous attention to his ingredients, as well as the skills and stories he has accumulated over the course of his career.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Downs cut his teeth in many world-renowned restaurants before coming to Taiwan in 2020. These include Attica in Australia, three-MICHELIN-starred Manresa in the United States, three-starred RyuGin in Tokyo, Japan, and one-starred Septime in Paris. The current menu at Holt reflects the chef’s journey and culinary evolution from his time in Australia, Europe, Japan and now Taiwan. There are no signature dishes in his repertoire, says Downs, since his thoughts — and thus what he creates — are always evolving and changing.
For a passionate chef whose thoughts about food and cuisine are never far from his mind and who has devoted himself to all-things culinary for more than 15 years, receiving this MICHELIN Star is an important milestone in his career.
In "Aged duck roasted over charcoal with caramelized fennel, preserved persimmon and taggiasca olive and cherry condiment" — Taiwan Cherry Duck is aged for 11 days and then grilled on the bone. The duck is brushed with koji while grilling, which helps caramelize the skin and adds sweetness. The fennel is cooked in butter with bay laurels and fresh thyme very slowly so it caramelizes its own juices and butter. The flavour combinations are a little bit inspired by Italy and France, says Down, as duck with olives is a classic Italian flavour combination and cherry with duck is very classic French. The olive/cherry condiment is a little bit sweet and salty, which matches well with the light gamey flavour of the duck. "For me, meat courses, should be a little bit more comforting, and I tend to be a little less ambitious with flavour combinations and textures," says Down.
"Octopus with bamboo, Lardo di Colonnata and mushroom broth" is a play on sea and earth — local octopus is simmered until tender and cooled down in its broth. The octopus is grilled over charcoal, with a bit of summer bamboo that has been grilled as well. Slices of Italian cured pork fat are laid over the octopus and bamboo, and the heat of the octopus starts to melt the fat. Mushroom consommé is poured table side. and finish with local spring onions and lovage oil.
How did you feel when they called your name on stage?
It was a relief. I was nervous yesterday being invited here, and I wasn't sure exactly what award I was winning if any. So, yeah, it was some relief when I got called.
What does this MICHELIN star mean to you?
It means a lot. I've been cooking now, working in restaurants for over 15 years. It's long hours, really dedicated myself to my craft. Getting this recognition means I've accomplished something. So it's always kind of been a goal in the back of my mind. And it feels really great.
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How are you going to celebrate?
Tonight we're going to the gala, like the whole restaurant, we have a table, so there's going to be about 15 of us, and I bought a new tuxedo for the event.
What was your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
I think when I first really knew about it, I was a dishwasher in a restaurant. One of the chef de parties had this Michel Bras Inventing Cuisine documentary on DVD and I borrowed one. I thought it was so cool, so I ended up buying all of these things. It was kind of the introduction.
Tell us about your cooking philosophy.
My cooking philosophy is always evolving - It really starts with great ingredients and try not to manipulate them too much, to really showcase them, the pure ingredient, but also be a little bit playful, with some different flavour combinations and also try to incorporate a lot of local ingredients, the Taiwan terroir.
Please share one dish that represents you the best?
I don't have like a signature dish or anything like that. I think my cuisine is always changing and evolving, hopefully getting better. I think all of the dishes, are a reflection of me and my training, what kind of food I like, and what I believe in.
What inspires you to get out of bed every morning?
I'm super passionate about food. I think about food non-stop. I've been working really hard, long hours for over a decade but it doesn't feel like work. And I am really thankful for that because sometimes your body hurts after a long day, but the passion for food and really keeps me going.
What impressed you most about this place?
I came here at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. I think Taiwan is a really great market for restaurants and also fine dining. There's so many foodies and people really passionate and support our restaurant. So that helps me keep doing what I'm doing. So I'm really privileged for that.
Who are you dedicating this MICHELIN star to?
Everyone at the restaurant — my partners, the whole staff, our farmers, and our suppliers. Also, my family. You know, they never told me to get a better career or anything like that. They always supported me. I'm really grateful for that.
What is your message to other young chefs who want to achieve a similar goal as you?
I would say, make sure you have passion for it because otherwise, it's going to be a lot harder to accomplish
And also try to stay a student for a long time because every day you learn something new and progress. There isn't a rush to be like a head chef when you're super young; it's better to learn from other people.
What are your hopes and plans for the coming year?
This has been the goal for a really long time, so I haven't given too much thought to what's next. Obviously, we're going to go to work tomorrow and keep progressing, try to get better every day.
FURTHER READING: MORE from "FIRST DAY WE GOT OUR STARS"
The article is written by Hsieh Ming-Ling and translated by Rachel Tan. Click here for the original article.